Who is the best player in the NBA?
Fresh off an MVP season, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was selected No. 1 in NBArank heading into the 2019-20 season. NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is right behind him at No. 2.
What’s the best case for each player to be No. 1 overall? And how does LeBron James fit into this debate at age 34?
The ESPN Hoop Collective crew of Brian Windhorst, Jackie MacMullan and Kirk Goldsberry debate those questions, with a little help from Andrew Han and Kevin Pelton. Watch the full video here on ESPN’s YouTube channel.
Disagree with the rankings? Vote on your own top five here.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Take your pick: Giannis or Kawhi?
Windhorst: I was thinking: It’s 2019. It’s not 2016. It’s not 2012. It’s a new day in the NBA.
Windhorst: Who’s the best player in the NBA?
MacMullan: Kawhi Leonard.
Goldsberry: No, Jackie. That’s incorrect. The best player in the NBA is Giannis Antetokounmpo. And it’s not particularly close.
There are three reasons why it’s Giannis. No. 1, he’s a better offensive player than Kawhi. No. 2, he’s a better defensive player than Kawhi. And No. 3, he’s 24 years old and just won the MVP.
MacMullan: I’ll give you that last one. That’s all.
OK. So let’s take them one by one. Better offensive player. Really? Are we sure? What metric are you using?
Goldsberry: Giannis scored more points. He did it at a more efficient rate and he’s the best interior scorer we’ve had since somebody named Shaquille O’Neal was in his absolute prime. He led the league in paint points and put up more paint points than anybody since Shaq in ’03-04 or something in there.
MacMullan: Kirk, you just spent all morning telling me that paint points no longer matter in the NBA. We spent a lot of time talking about how the game is going out to the perimeter. And listen, I think Giannis will be the best player. He’s just not there yet because he only shoots 25% from the 3-point line. As you know, Kawhi Leonard, one of your former players, shoots around 33.3%.
But be that as it may, Brian, let’s just talk about what happened, shall we, last season in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. OK? The Toronto Raptors are down two-to-nothing. Nick Nurse says: You know what? I’ve got to do something. I’m going to put Kawhi on Giannis. And Kawhi Leonard then proved why he’s a better defensive player than Giannis — or maybe a better defensive player than anyone.
Would you like to know what happened?
Windhorst: Yes. Remind me.
MacMullan: OK, in 41 matchups —
Windhorst: It was a pretty damn big important moment.
MacMullan: It kind of was.
In 41 matchups, Giannis took 12 shots, scored four points and had an effective field goal percentage (eFG) of 16.7%. Let us just say that swung things the other way. Now as it went along, Giannis got a little better at being guarded by Kawhi, until it came to the all-encompassing Game 6, which is when the best player should shine. I think we agree. Three shots, four points for Kirk’s best player in the NBA.
Goldsberry: As you know from your playing days, basketball is a team game. And the Raptors need to be commended for building a superb postseason team that included Marc Gasol — world champion Marc Gasol. It included Kyle Lowry; Serge Ibaka, a phenomenal defender; Pascal Siakam, a phenomenal defender; Danny Green, a phenomenal defender. Give head coach Nick Nurse and all those dudes credit, they shut down Giannis in that series. Nobody deserves more credit than Kawhi. He is a marvelous on-ball perimeter defender.
The two stats that make me think that Giannis is an even better defender than Kawhi are the following: Out of 38 players who defen